The Western Hockey League held its annual bantam draft on Thursday, and for the third straight year, no Estevan-bred players were selected.
The last Estevan player to be drafted by a WHL team was Wyatt Garagan, who went 85th overall to the Tri-City Americans in 2009.
The only current Estevan product in the league is 18-year-old winger Austin Daae, who had six points in 52 games with the Prince George Cougars this year.
The city has also never produced a born-and-bred NHL player.
Kootenay Ice director of scouting Garnet Kazuik, who was born in Estevan, said he’s not sure why the city struggles to develop players who go on to compete at the highest levels of the game.
“I don’t know if there’s an easy way to put a finger on it,” said Kazuik, whose playing days included stints with several WHL teams.
“It’s not just Estevan and area. You can go into other areas and they have the same problems. Maybe it’s a bigger picture thing where we need to look at it and delve into it,” he said, citing a larger centre like Red Deer which only had one player drafted on Thursday.
Kazuik noted that young players need as much time on the ice as possible and that bigger centres have an advantage in that respect.
“It’s the time spent, whether it’s working on your shooting, passing, skating. Adding another ice surface (at Spectra Place), that’s going to give kids more hours spent. That’s a starting point for that. When you look at the bigger cities, maybe they have a little more exposure for coaches and different skill clinics.”
Kazuik feels that the new province-wide bantam AA league which was instituted this past season will help more kids develop their game by playing against top competition.
Brad Pierson, who has coached at all levels of minor hockey and was an assistant with the bantam AA Bruins this season, said Estevan has had many near misses and believes the so-called drought shouldn’t be laid at the feet of the Estevan Minor Hockey Association.
“I think there are some tokens of bad luck,” said Pierson, citing Prairie Storm defenceman Brennan Riddle as an example. Riddle was selected 17th overall by the Calgary Hitmen last week. He was born in Estevan and played here until peewee AA, when his family moved to Balgonie.
“He was a great hockey player then and everybody knew he was going to be a good hockey player. Is that where the bad luck comes in and he goes to another system and develops into a great player? Or is it the unknown of it that the parents moved to give him a better opportunity?” Pierson pondered.
He also noted players like Joel Stepp and Dustin Johner, who both have had long careers in the minor pro leagues after going through the EMHA system, but were born in nearby communities.
“There are great examples where I think Estevan Minor Hockey was able to produce kids, but it’s forgotten because these kids aren’t from Estevan, they’re from Torquay,” he said.
Pierson said there are other variables that can affect where a player’s hockey career takes him.
“I have other examples where maybe they weren’t mistreated by minor hockey, maybe they were mistreated by their parents.
“I just can’t say that I have coached a kid or that I can think of a kid who’s come up through this system in the last 15 years who hasn’t been given an opportunity to develop.”
While the Prairie Storm had three players picked in the top 20 of last week’s draft (defenceman Troy Murray 10th, Riddle 17th and leading scorer Jayden Halbgewachs 19th), Pierson said the top-tier skill has to be there to be developed in the first place.
“A Jayden Halbgewachs doesn’t come by every year. Those are not average kids. You have to be blessed with having the talent in order to work with the talent that’s going to be elite players.”
Moose Jaw Warriors head scout Rob MacLachlan said all is not lost for a player if he isn’t picked by a WHL team. Late bloomers are listed by teams on a regular basis — the best example perhaps being Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla.
“There are lots of players that don’t get drafted. I have seven on my team right now that were listed, and you saw how good we were this year,” MacLachlan said on Friday.
“At the end of the day, my first round pick and 10th round pick, today, are the same player. Yesterday there was a difference, today they’re all equal. If the 10th round pick comes to camp and outplays the first round pick, the 10th round pick will make the team, because it’s a business.”
He said there were 182 “draftable” players on the Warriors’ list, and about 80 weren’t picked.
“Those 80 kids, as far as I’m concerned, all have a shot at it. Most of them will get camp invites, and they could get listed out of camp,” said MacLachlan.
Kazuik cited Estevan product Lynnden Pastachak as an example of a player making the most of not being taken in the WHL draft. Pastachak is now with the midget AAA Yorkton Harvest and is drawing WHL interest.
“He took an opportunity, he didn’t get drafted, he kept going and now he’s got an opportunity with Red Deer and I think that’s fantastic. Whether you get drafted, it doesn’t really matter, it’s what you do from that point forward.”